To be able to learn as well as to be able to act and communicate meaningfully, we need to be able to make sense of our world. The human ability to build analogies and more specifically, to understand and create metaphors is one of the most powerful cognitive tools to acquire knowledge and to cope with new and unknown situations as well as complex and abstract topics.
The self is a highly complex and abstract matter and – in the case of biographical transitions – also subject to changes in the self-environment-relationship. Reflecting and com-municating self-relevant experiences, feelings and cognitions thus relies very much on met-aphors. The tacit knowledge implicated by metaphor models can be described as symbolic environment of the self, which establishes meaningful links between the social and physical environment and the self. Analogous to the function of the physical environment as behav-ior setting, the function of metaphors as symbolic environment can be described as mind settings, which enable self-relevant talk, evoke self-relevant cognitions, guide self-awareness and self-monitoring processes and enable self-presentation and self-completion strategies.
The subjects studied are Swiss German students, which participated in a representative questionnaire study about their anticipated transition from university to work. A sub¬sample of twelve students was included in the metaphor study and interviewed about their experiences with success and relationship quality and their expectations and wishes for the future. The transcribed interviews were analyzed on three different levels: 1. content analysis, 2. metaphor analysis: identification of metaphors and source domains, and 3. analysis of self-concept aspects such as ideal, actual, negative, ought and social self.
Data analysis shows statistically significant and system¬atic relationships between themes and metaphors and between self-concept aspects and metaphors. There is a general preference for scientific and tech¬nological metaphors, followed by con¬tainer, path, visual, balance, war and economic metaphors. Metaphor use is also significantly influenced by social variables such as the general orientation towards the future, the field of study and, to a smaller extent, gender. These general tendencies are sometimes overridden by individual preferences for one specific metaphor model, which can be interpreted as individual habituation to structure the self-environment-relationship. Individual preferences of metaphors are consistent independently of themes or self-concept aspects in all but in one instance: when people talk about their ideal self they change their otherwise preferred metaphor models and systematically choose other metaphor source domains to talk about their wishes and goals for the future.
These findings suggest that there are indeed culturally and socially acceptable patterns for metaphorically structuring and communicating the self. They also suggest that there is a certain individual choice within the limits of a general pool of knowledge about the self. Nevertheless, self-related talk is less individually structured than generally assumed in self-concept research. Consequences of these findings for methods and theory in self-concept research are discussed. The importance of metaphorical knowledge structures are also discussed with respect to the following topics: automated action and priming processes, anticipation processes and self-concept change, and distributed representations in artificial intelligence.